At the end of the 31st annual Hispanic Heritage month, Latinos in the US are still waiting to celebrate a crucial victory --getting rid of the toxic water that poisons so many of our communities. This problem is nationwide, but as far as we are concerned, the situation is much more critical.
This issue was exposed in all its tragic gravity in a historic New York Times exposé about water quality in our country, denouncing that since 2004 there have been at least half a million violations of the Clean Water Act.
The Times features an interactive map detailing these violations with orange dots. And if we pay attention, the larger the concentration of Latinos, the more orange the map gets.
This is a reflection of the conclusions of the first-ever national survey about Latinos and the environment sponsored last year by the Sierra Club. The study confirmed what we all feared: the vast majority of Latinos (66 percent) live, work or go to school dangerously close to a toxic site.
This outrageous figure also tells us that where there are toxic sites, toxic water abounds, just like in Anapra, New Mexico, one of the country's poorest and most polluted communities. This town, whose population is 95 percent Hispanic, day in and day out pays the high price of lead poisoning caused by the emissions of a nearby smelter.
Until it was shut down in 1999, for more than a century the ASARCO smelter spewed thousands of tons of lead and other heavy metals, covering the communities around it with a lethal gray cloak. Today, the lead has seaped down to the area's aquifers.
"The water we drink is dangerous," says Merit Velasco, a representative from La Casita, Anapra's community center. "Eighty percent of our children have learning disabilities because of the lead. Also, the lead makes them very aggressive."
Anaprans seem to be resigned to their own fate. The New Mexico authorities limit themselves to issue water pollution warnings only in English. Someone should tell them that in Anapra and many other border communities, 70 percent of residents cannot read in English.
Something similar is taking place in the towns of Rialto and Bloomington, close to San Bernardino, California, whose populations are more than half Hispanic. There, the poison is called perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, which affects the growth, development and metabolism of the human body, and also is known to cause cancer. This poison comes from nearby facilities run by the Air Force, NASA, and defense contractors.
According to the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water in California, perchlorate has been detected in drinking water, milk, breast milk and fresh vegetables. The pollution affects several communities, but once again the most punished are those of color.
"Where the perchlorate is, the majority of African American, Latino and poor whites live," said Davin Díaz, a leader of the local Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. "Rialto and Bloomington are low-income areas. I don't think there is a perchlorate plume in Beverly Hills."
Two of the polluters, Lockheed Martin and Aerojet, were forced to undertake expensive perchlorate clean-ups in Bernardino and Sacramento counties. But as the Times exposé tells us, for the vast majority of polluters, their crimes are water under the bridge.
This is indeed a bitter taste. According to the Times, 10 percent of Americans have been exposed to polluted drinking water, 19.5 million get sick every year after drinking water contaminated with pathogens, and 40 percent of community water services and 23,000 companies or institutions have violated the Clean Water Act since 2004.
The exposé also quotes an unnamed Environmental Protection Agency source as saying impunity was particularly intense during the George W. Bush administration: "We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases, put them in a box, and lock it shut."
The Obama administration, on the other hand, has promised it will revitalize the existing clean water standards and establish others to deal with new threats.
We hope so, because our independence from bitter tastes would truly be something to celebrate.